Glover explores reality of black life in ‘Atlanta’

Photo courtesy of FX

Welcome to “Atlanta,” a new comedy on FX that is important for being unlike anything else on television. Created by Donald Glover (“Community”), the show combines elements the actor-rapper knows well: comedy, hip-hop (he raps under the name of Childish Gambino), and what it is like to be black in the city of Atlanta.

The story follows the aptly named Earnest “Earn” Marks, a former Princeton student who left college for reasons unknown even to his parents and moved back home to Atlanta. He dreams of earning a higher paycheck to support his daughter. Once he realizes that his cousin Alfred Marks (Brian Tyree Henry, “Vice Principals”) is rising to fame under the guise of a rapper, Paper Boi (who is also, as his song claims, “all about that paper, boi”), Earn sets out to rekindle their relationship with hopes of being his manager.   

Through the course of the pilot, it becomes evident that the characters are the driving force behind the show, rather than the major plot lines.

However, a slow-moving plot by no means translates into a boring show. Television viewers have become accustomed to a constant stream of entertainment, but somehow this show presents a climactic event in the pilot that is pushed aside as matters of the day-to-day take precedence — and it works. In fact, in the course of the first three episodes, “Atlanta” tackles topics such as use of “the n-word,” mental illness, homophobia, police brutality, the influence of rap culture on children, drug-dealing, dating on a budget, and the desire for something more than life currently contains.

While other comedies prioritize pushing the audience a to care about its characters, “Atlanta” takes a more relaxed approach. The less dramatic pace allows its comedy to naturally unfold, and it’s true-to-life feel makes it all the funnier.

Darius (Keith Stanfield, “Straight Outta Compton”) brings his own hilarious breed of reflective, offbeat philosophy to the archetypal stoner character. He delightfully foils the intensity of shoot-outs in gas stations or drug-deals gone bad.

When Earn first enters Paper Boi’s apartment, Darius is poised to stab him but instead offers him a cookie. Later Earn rhetorically wonders who exactly Darius is, and he comically alludes to their initial meeting by identifying himself as the guy who offered Earn a cookie.

The show begins with a scene of Earn in bed describing a dream to the mother of his child, Van (Zazie Beets, “Applesauce”). This opening is no coincidence: later scenes leave the audience wondering if what is shown happening is reality. In one incident on a bus, a stranger making a Nutella sandwich abruptly tells Earn to “bite this sandwich” before disappearing from the bus and walking into the woods.

Such surreal scenes bring an unexpected twist and make the ordinary difficulties of the characters’ lives seem to be on the more magical side of realism. Despite the foray into fantasy, much of the show ring as true as it gets. Moments from the second episode, which takes place primarily in jail, leave the viewer shocked by the violence and despair found behind bars. The viewer easily concedes with Earn, who laments “I hate this place.”

While Glover is known for his charisma, which shines through in his other work, his portrayal of the character Earn is an exercise in the opposite. The aimless and lonely qualities Earn displays make him difficult to fully understand, but this aspect somehow makes him more compelling as a vehicle for illustrating the minute ordeals normal people face every day. The show drifts from hilarious to dreamy to downright horrific with ease, thanks to the director, Hiro Murai, who has worked with Glover on music videos in the past. Despite this dissonance, perhaps even because of it, “Atlanta” earns its place as an important show to witness.